Tuesday, June 08, 2010

`Good Writing Sips the Foam From the Cup'

“I am an old writer, & yet I often meet good English words which I never used once. Thus I met just now the word wainscot.”

This is the Emerson whose company I most enjoy – not the Unitarian or Transcendentalist, the airy-minded Sage of Concord, but the writer with a gift for wonder, enthusiasm and curiosity. The “old writer” jotted these sentences in his journal in 1865, the year he turned sixty-two. I remember using wainscoting for the first time in the nineteen-eighties in a story about house demolition I wrote as a newspaper reporter. Learning a word and using it correctly is satisfying enough to be lastingly memorable, worth preserving in a journal (my journal being a newspaper). Only a writer, for whom words are warm, palpable objects, will understand.

The Library of America recently published Emerson’s Selected Journals, edited by Lawrence Rosenwald, in two volumes covering 1820-1842 and 1841-1877. Strange to think that when he started his journal, John Keats had another year to live and Thoreau was Emerson’s three-year-old Concord neighbor. I’ve read like a dilettante in the more scholarly sixteen-volume set of his journals and notebooks but never systematically. The new selection I’ve been reading sequentially but with a guilt-free skipping over of dull passages, and there are many, especially those devoted to homespun metaphysics and almost anything to do with Bronson Alcott, the Channings, Brook Farm and other utopian schemes. Without his genius for sentences Emerson, like so many in his circle, would have ended up a high-minded drone. Here’s a passage from 1857:

“Surfaces. Good writing sips the foam from the cup. There are infinite degrees of delicacy in the use of the hands; and good workmen are so distinguished from laborers; & good horsemen, from rude riders; & people of elegant manners, from the vulgar. In writing it is not less. Montaigne dwells always at the surface, & can chip off a scale, where a coarser hand & eye finds only solid wall.”

Typical Emerson: the paradox of plumbing the depths of surfaces, a nice conceit he might have borrowed from paradox-minded Thoreau (whose writerly strategy, cell-deep, is as dedicated to paradox as Chesterton’s). Again, only a writer knows how deep and essential are surfaces, ignored only by the superficial. In an echoing entry from 1844-1845, Emerson writes:

“Poetry has never dived. It hovers opaline about the brighter surfaces, but rarely ventures into the real world. How pungent are the words that once in an age or two record those experiences.”

First one thinks: ridiculous. Hasn’t he read Homer, Dante and Shakespeare? Of course he has, and almost everything else. So what does he mean by “the real world” and why aren’t “the brighter surfaces” a part of it? Is this refried Plato, unnamed? The thought is never developed, found as it is in a journal not an essay, scholarly or otherwise, but the observation is useful. How long since you read a poetry of “pungent words?”

Emerson’s wit is sprinkled sparsely through his journals, and more welcome for its sparseness. In 1857 he notes: “If men should take off their clothes, I think the aristocracy would not be less, but more pronounced than now.” It’s like a joke turned back on itself and seems to imply at least two punch lines. In the next entry, so different from the last, Emerson writes:

“If men were as thick as snowflakes,--millions of flakes, but there is still but one snowflake: but every man is a door to a single deep secret.”

The science is shaky – snowflakes are proverbially unique in design – but the image convinces us that each man is singular and mysterious. The joy of reading Emerson’s journals is the joy of half-expected surprise, like nuggets in slurry or diamonds in a magpie’s nest. He’s not for every reader, and sometimes he’s not for this one, but we read for the shiny things in the dross. He writes in 1854:

“A good head cannot read amiss. In every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides, hidden from all else, & unmistakeably [sic] meant for his ear. No book has worth by itself; but by the relation to what you have from many other books, it weighs.”

1 comment:

Dave Lull said...

"Approach to the poem must be from afar off, even generations off. A reader should close in on it on converging lines from many directions like the divisions of an army upon a battlefield.

"A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written. We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A). We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do."

Robert Frost, "The Prerequisites" (1954), The Collected Prose of Robert Frost, edited by Mark Richardson (Belknap Press, 2007), page 174: